Jim Fosgate spent decades pursuing perfect sound
Jim Fosgate is on a quest, almost spiritual, to find the perfect sound. It has, to say the least, consumed him for most of his life. From rags to riches and back again more than once, the soft-spoken audio designer has endured. Like the literary Don Quixote, Fosgate chased his own impossible dream, tilting at his own windmills for decades. During a recent interview at his home/sound lab in nearby Heber, the legendary, Emmy award-winning surround-sound pioneer reflected on his journey.
He was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, the son of a radio and television repairman. "My dad was brilliant," says Fosgate. "He built the first television and antenna in Indianapolis from spare parts. He really understood what made radios sound good. I must have inherited it from him, but I understood electronics and audio just like I was born with it. It was normal and natural to me, like it was already programmed into me. He taught me a lot, how to be a seat-of-the-pants designer who could think and figure things out."
In his early teens, he built a portable radio from scavenged parts and installed it on his cruiser bicycle. "I rode it all over Indianapolis and was quite a hit," he grins.
Fosgate survived high school with "D" grades in English, but straight "As" in mathematics and electronics classes. He moved to California in 1964, later relocating to Arizona.
An avid radio-controlled model airplane builder and flyer, he was frustrated with early radio transmitters. In characteristic fashion, he designed and built a RC transmitter vastly superior to anything on the market at the time. The innovative radio soon evolved into the "Pro-line" RC transmitter and Fosgate’s first business was launched. Success was short-lived, however, when Japanese "copycat radios" soon flooded the market and undercut prices.
In the 1970s he turned his attention and his ear back to his first love — sound. Though completely self-taught, he approached the challenge with confidence. "I always had a good ear and I can tell when something sounds good and when it doesn’t. I don’t come from the theoretical or mathematical end of things. I just sit down with something and make it sound the way I want it to. It’s intuitive." The result was a wellspring of sound innovation.
He designed, built and marketed the first truly high-performance car stereo systems. His innovative "Punch EQ" equalizer introduced bass boost to car stereo and started a sound revolution in that industry. In the ’80s, he was among the pioneers of "quadraphonic" sound.
Though he had some success, there were casualties along the way. The designs and products he created were always good, but the marketing and timing were not. Other companies, some with deeper pockets, some without scruples, all with stables of lawyers, proved his nemesis on more than one occasion. Failed businesses and bankruptcy followed, but Fosgate never gave up.
Though he took a few day jobs through the years, he was always at his best on his own. "I never worked well for other people in an office or factory environment," he confesses. In the late 1970s, he was working on yet another sound project in Prescott when Norma, his soul mate, knocked on the door.
"She came by one day because she always heard music when she walked by. We hit it off and one thing led to another. She’s a wonderful person," he says lovingly. They were married in 1981.
In the mid-1980s they moved to Heber. Norma grew up in Salt Lake City and had family in the area. Soon, they had opened Fosgate Audio in Heber, where they manufactured and sold top quality pre-amps. The company did well for years, but never reached "critical mass." Fosgate sold the company in the 1990s.
The stage was set for his greatest accomplishment (so far). After years of trial and error, he perfected a ground-breaking design for a matrix surround processor. When he demonstrated it to the engineers at Dolby in 2000, they immediately recognized it as a true technological breakthrough in television and audio surround sound. His years and years of struggle were about to pay off. Within two years, Dolby Pro Logic II was on the market and Fosgate’s genius was finally financially rewarded, and then some.
In 2003, he was honored with the ultimate recognition in his field. At a posh ceremony at the Trump Towers Hotel in New York City, Fosgate was awarded an Emmy for his remarkable achievements in the development of surround sound for television.
Fosgate is philosophical about the Emmy, his 18 patents for sound technology and his many other achievements. "Audio doesn’t give away its secrets easily. I worked hard to make things sound the way I wanted and it finally paid off. But I just never expected it [the Emmy], never worked toward it. It was pretty fantastic really, something I’m really proud of."
Life hasn’t always been easy for Fosgate, especially from a monetary standpoint. But he wouldn’t have had it any other way. "Until the money from Pro Logic II started coming in 2002, we were just like most everybody else, scraping from day to day. I was never working for the money, but the money finally followed. It’s kind of weird to finally make it because you’ve still got that mentality that you had and you always will. That’s probably a good thing," notes Fosgate, whose daily work routine hasn’t changed much.
Though he no longer needs the money, he’s still working toward perfection with his pre-amps, still chasing his dream. "I just sent a drawing to an electronics company in China and they’ll be in production of my latest design soon."
As Fosgate eases into his late 70s, life for him and Norma is good. It’s been a lifelong labor of love for the man, who offers this advice to others on the long road: "A lot of people are trying to figure out what they want to do in life. If you can find something you love to do and you’re just passionate about it and good at it, make it your work. That is the very best because the time will just fly by and you will enjoy it."
- Favorite activities: Working in his lab and flying radio-controlled airplanes
- Favorite food: Mexican
- Favorite reading: Audio and electronics trade journals
- Favorite performers/music: Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, Moody Blues, new age and some rock
- Bucket List: Just keep working
- Animal companions: Two Dachshunds and a Yorkie/mutt mix
Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at email@example.com
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